From Goris, we made our way back towards Yerevan, stopping to check out the cave city complex of Khndzoresk and ride the world’s longest cable car in Tatev. We had 3 nights in Yerevan and stayed at the excellent Kantar Hostel, the perfect base for us to explore the city. Yerevan definitely impressed, and we really enjoyed our time in the beautiful city. All too quickly, our week getaway in Armenia came to a quick end, so we made our way back to Georgia.
15 April – Gagik was on time at 9 am to start our day. Robby got into a heated discussion with him on why our excursion yesterday was so cheap (34,000) and the one today was so expensive (45,000) considering the distances were exactly the same. Gagik explained that his overnight stay in Goris was approximately 5,000 so we urged Robby to drop it. We didn’t want things between us to get uncomfortable since Gagik was providing a service as promised. From Goris, we drove to Khndzoresk (10 km east of Goris), an area dotted with caves ripe for exploring. An army unit was at the top of the hillside overlooking the caves, and Gagik warned all of us not to point our cameras in their direction because we would be detained or arrested for doing so. The suspension bridge to Khndzoresk was pretty cool…a bit scary when you looked down and could actually see how high up we were! We spent an hour in the rain checking out the caves before the long staircase back up to where Gagik dropped us off. From here, we drove towards Tatev, where we took the world’s longest cable car ride (5.7 km) on the “Wings of Tatev Aerial Tramway” from Halidzor village to Tatev Monastery. A Guinness Book of Records sign proudly showcased this honor, and we had a brief moment of perfect weather for our ride. The scenery was stunning, and we were busy snapping away at the phenomenal vistas. The ride was only 12 minutes long (versus 30 minutes by car up a tortuous road), and it was hands down the coolest way to rock up to a monastery. Tatev Monastery is quite large but it was undergoing renovations, making it hard to take photos. By the time we got ready to leave, it was starting to rain so we had timed our visit perfectly. From Halidzor, Gagik drove us down to Satan’s Bridge (Devil’s bridge), which had been visible from the cable car ride. Here we were supposed to take a dip in the water if we were so inclined. The water was only lukewarm, so we decided not to go for a swim. As we drove towards Yerevan, the rain suddenly stopped and the sun erupted behind clouds, making for a fine afternoon, weather wise. It was late afternoon by the time we pulled up to the best hostel in Yerevan, the excellent Kantar Hostel (6900 Dram each, including an excellent breakfast in an 8 bed dorm). Kantar gets our vote for one of the top 10 hostels we’ve ever stayed at. Clean, central location (perfect for exploring Yerevan on foot), comfortable, super friendly staff, excellent facilities, free tea/coffee 24/7, private lockers, towels, lounge area, and a massive breakfast buffet.
Lars was keen to check out Yerevan’s only brewery so we set out to Republic Square towards Opera Square and onward to the Cascades. There, we found the Beer Academy….good beer and food. Robby ordered lamb chops which were freaking delicious and a bargain to boot…4 chops for $6. Lars didn’t need any incentive to like the Beer Academy even more , but when he found out that he was getting a free draft beer for being the first one to rate the newly debuted ginger beer., he was in 7th heaven. He immediately ordered a custom made Beer Academy t-shirt, Yerevan edition. It was close to midnight by the time we strolled back to the hostel…Yerevan is such a lovely city to behold, especially at night.
16 April – At 8:30, we were the first ones to barge into the kitchen for our free breakfast. None of us was expecting too much, this was a budget hostel after all. We couldn’t have been more surprised…Kantar put on an excellent breakfast spread, from tea/coffee to pastries and an assortment of breads, cheeses, and meat slices, two hot meals, yogurt, caviar, olives, cakes, honey…the works. We ate until we were completely stuffed and were immediately excited to be able to eat here two more times, ha. The kitchen staff was so friendly and nice…two huge thumbs up for Kantar. Gagik was there at 9 am for our pickup. Today was the last day we were using his services and we wanted to end things on a positive note. We had seen the jacked up prices his competitors were charging, so we knew we were getting really good value using him. There were just a lot of growing pains as we suspected we were his first clients. As he later admitted, he learned a shit ton from us as clients and we told him we hoped that he could get more and more customers because lord knows he needs the money. The weather was crap, with rain pouring down. Come on Yerevan sunshine…show yourself! We had only scheduled 4 sights for today (Holy Echmiadzin, Zvartnots Cathedral, Garni Temple and Geghard Monastery), so it was to be an easy half day for Gagik (25,000).
Our first destination of Holy Echmiadzin is a revered destination for Armenian Christians. Unfortunately it was undergoing massive renovations and the museum that houses the spearhead that pierced Jesus was closed, so we didn’t linger too long. The next stop was the ancient cathedral ruins of Zvartnots. Back when it was first built (7th century), it was the tallest structure in the world at a whopping 40 meters in height. The ruins today don’t impress because they’re a bit hard to imagine what the structure looked like originally, but the nearby museum had a scale model as a visual aid. Our next stop felt like it should be in Greece, not Armenia. The Garni Temple is a Hellenic style temple, built as a Parthenon like structure. It really looked out of place in Armenia and was extremely popular with large tour groups. And we saved the best for last. The beautiful Geghard Monastery was pretty impressive with nice carvings in its interior, which felt like Indiana Jones territory. It had been raining all morning long but it eased up just before we left. Great timing for a massive wedding party that visited as we were leaving…the bride must have felt relieved that the rain finally let up since she was dressed in a gorgeous dress with killer heels…what a struggle she had climbing up to the monastery!
For lunch, we offered to treat Gagik to a delicious meal of khoravats (grilled mixed meat served with lavash bread). Our total bill came out to 12000 Dram including drinks for the 4 of us, and we left feeling completely stuffed. Back in Yerevan, we gave Gagik a small tip for his driving services and paid for today’s excursion (30000 Dram), and thanked him for showing us his beautiful country. Even though things between Gagik and us had started off on a sour note, our constant feedback and negotiations had resulted in all of us feeling satisfied that we had booked a tour with him. We definitely think that we were a steep learning curve for Gagik, especially if he wants to survive on providing independent tours in Armenia. All of us wished him all the best and it was nice to leave each other on a high note. It was early afternoon when we got dropped off at Vernissage Market, an open air market selling souvenirs, local handicrafts, traditional dolls, coins, antique irons, and wooden carvings. Back at the hostel, we chilled for a few hours in the comfy lounge room, drinking up all the remaining vodka and cognac. After pre-loading, we went bar hopping: Tom Collins, Cantaloupe Pub (ran out of beer, yes seriously, so we settled for a doo doo shot), and 90s cafe pub which was no longer a pub but a happening dance club. The bouncer hailed from DRC, so we immediately befriended him. Here we danced our butts off…no sleep till 2:30 am. Great evening out in funky Yerevan!
17 April – Grrr! Our clothes stunk of cigarette smoke so we were forced to hand wash before breakfast. Again, the hostel didn’t disappoint with an amazing concoction of spaghetti bolognese for the hot meal. Not a typical breakfast but it was freaking delicious…we ate till our pants were tight and then spent the rest of the day walking it all off. Robby customized a Yerevan sightseeing tour for us in the following order: Blue Mosque, Cascades, War memorial, Genocide Museum. The weather was perfect and we enjoyed being outdoors all day long. The Armenian Genocide Museum is a bit too far out of town to walk to, so we caught a taxi there. First taxi refused to turn on the meter and tried to quote us 1500 Dram, so we demanded he stop the car and we all hopped out. He thought we were bluffing until we hailed another cab. Once he saw that we were negotiating a ride, he started honking his horn and offered to turn on the meter. No way Jose! The second taxi guy was great…turned the meter on immediately and only charged us 600 Dram for the ride. Gotta watch out for those suspect taxi drivers! The Genocide Museum is absolutely a must do if ever in Armenia. It is a horrifically fascinating museum with excellent displays explaining what the Ottoman Empire did to Armenia. Truly evil and despicable. We left shell shocked after two hours of this mesmerizing museum. No one ever talks about the Armenian holocaust. Indeed, Hitler is quoted as saying “Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?” Who indeed. The US didn’t even recognize the Armenian Holocaust until 2010 because it didn’t want to upset Turkey, considered an important ally. We left with disgust and hatred in our hearts…the things that humans can do to each other. It is truly amazing that there is an Armenia for us to visit today considering the Ottoman Empire was extremely methodical and successful in wiping Armenians off the face of the earth (out of 2 million Armenians, 1.5 million were systematically slaughtered under the guise of WWI). Take the time to learn about this period of history…it will leave you in shock and horror.
Our return taxi ride was 1000 Dram, and we asked to be dropped off at Republic square where we scoped out a nearby local restaurant for more grilled meats…yum! All of us have become addicted to Yerevan’s soft serve ice cream cones (200 Dram) so we couldn’t pass it up after our late lunch. Back at the hostel, we took a quick nap before heading back out to the Beer Academy. Lars’ custom made shirt was ready for pickup. Too bad it was freaking horrendous! We giggled out loud and he tried to formulate the words to express his disappointment. The friendly waiter who had coordinated the t-shirt didn’t really understand why Lars wasn’t thrilled…in the end, he ended up with a super pricey (10000 Dram), super ugly souvenir of Beer Academy, Yerevan edition. It was hilarious. Night photos rounded out the rest of our evening and we were back to the hostel by 11 pm.
18 April – Goodbye beautiful Yerevan! We will miss you so much. One of the friendly Kantar staff called to arrange our return trip to Tbilisi (8000 Dram each, pick up at Kilikia bus station) for a Yerevan to Tbilisi shuttle with drop off at Avlabari metro station. She also called a taxi to take us to the bus station (600 Dram). The shuttle was supposed to leave at 10:30 am, but as soon as we showed up and paid, we left 20 minutes earlier than expected. The van drove around the city and picked up 3 more passengers, and with 6 in the van, we zoomed off towards the Republic of Georgia. The border crossing was simple and before we knew it, we were back in Georgia.
Final reflections on Armenia: to truly understand the psyche of Armenia, head directly to the Armenian Genocide Museum in Yerevan. The systematic crimes against humanity by the Ottoman Empire towards the Armenians is truly abhorrent, shocking and despicable. The museum does an excellent job outlining the Young Turks planned annihilation of the Armenian people, taking advantage of WWI to wipe out over 1.5 million Armenians (out of 2 million). Amazingly, some Armenians survived the purge, and even today, the country is struggling to survive. Yerevan looks like a young, hip, trendy and cosmopolitan capital city, but wander away from the capital and see how the people truly live, especially out in the countryside. Jobs are scarce, economies are depressed, and the people are struggling to make do. No doubt about it, Armenians are survivors. They will adapt and overcome, and hope is on the horizon. Just visiting the amazing monasteries and churches throughout the country made us realize how lucky we were that any of the relics, khachkars, and monasteries survived the purge of WWI. The Ottoman Empire was intent on systematically wiping out Christianity from this part of the world and they almost succeeded. We learned a lot from our visit to Armenia and would absolutely recommend others visit if they get a chance. Just don’t expect it to be all sunshine and roses. Armenia is raw and in your face. We will not soon forget it.